Tactical Analysis: Disjointed Arsenal press leaves gaps Liverpool exploit

Another year another miserable opening day result. Three goals in a 15 minute span to open the second half gave Liverpool a lopsided 4-1 advantage and although goals from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Chambers made the final score look a little more respectable, they did little to mask what a humiliating afternoon this was for the club.

In his post match press conference Arsene Wenger put the loss down to three main factors: the psychological blow of Coutinho’s late first half equalizer, being physically not at peak levels, and inexperience. None of those feel like especially valid excuses and if anything reflect poorly on Wenger himself. Coutinho’s free kick was certainly a blow but doesn’t explain the total meltdown at the start of the second half that saw Klopp’s side score 3 in the span of 15 minutes. As for not being ready physically, Liverpool had more players at the Euros than any other club side so they shouldn’t have had an advantage there. Finally, the fact we were fielding an inexperienced side is solely on Wenger for not bringing in needed additional players this summer. Yes we’ve been unlucky with injuries but center back was a spot we’ve needed reinforcements at since the second half of last season.

Lineups

Klopp named a fairly unsurprising first 11 perhaps with the exception of Jordan Henderson given the nod at the base of midfield over Emre Can. They played a 4-3-3 with Adam Lallana to the right of Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum to the left in midfield. Sadio Mane played on the right of the front three, Coutinho played on the left and Firmino started at striker. Across the back Alberto Moreno and Nathanial Clyne played left and right back respectively. Dejan Lovren and summer signing Ragnar Klavan partnered at center back.

Wenger opted not to play Monreal at center back to provide some experience there and instead gave the 19 year old Rob Holding his debut. Holding partnered Chambers with Monreal at his normal left back spot and Bellerin at right back. Wenger stuck with his policy of easing new signings into the squad by leaving out Granit Xhaka and went with Elneny and Coquelin in the holding roles of our 4-2-3-1. Alexis led the line as he had against Manchester City with Ramsey in the hole behind him in the #10 role. Alex Iwobi played on the left. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly Theo Walcott played wide on the right. Wenger has suggested he’s not good enough defensively to play wide but he performed there well in the friendly against City and was rewarded with a start here.

Arsenal press in midfield but keep deep defensive line, leaving big gaps

We started the match by pressing high up the pitch. I imagine the high pressing was designed with the thought of protecting our inexperienced center backs- do our defending high up the pitch with our midfielders and attackers so that Holding and Chambers have less of it to do near our own box. Liverpool were quite sloppy in possession in the first half which made our pressing look better than it actually was. But in truth our pressing was disjointed throughout- we were leaving too big of gaps between the first wave of players pressing and those in behind. The defense needed to step forward a few yards to prevent Liverpool from playing between our lines. The visitors struggled to keep the ball in the opening half but our defensive shape still wasn’t right. In the second half they would exploit us.

One of Coquelin or Elneny would push high up the pitch when Liverpool were in possession to close down Henderson when he got on the ball. As a result, our non-pressing deep lying midfielder was left alone behind to defend the width of the center of the pitch. When Coquelin pressed Henderson, Elneny was 1 v. 2 against Liverpool’s other two center midfielders Lallana and Wijnaldum. Coutinho also tucked inside from his attacking left midfield position which further overloaded Elneny. Liverpool were able to quickly combine through Arsenal’s far too open midfield to create chances. Once they got beyond our first line of pressing there was acres of open space to exploit.

The image below is an illustration. Henderson receives the ball deep in midfield. Coquelin steps out of the defensive bank of four to press. Elneny is left to defend Lallana and Wijnaldum 1 v. 2. One simple pass from Henderson to Wijnaldum means Liverpool have broken our press, leaving Elneny in a world of bother to try to slow down Wijnaldum and Lallana on his own. From this position it’s two passes- from Henderson to Wijnaldum and Wijnaldum to Lallana- and Liverpool are at our back four.

Below is another example just a couple minutes later. Here Elneny is doing the pressing with Coquelin sitting deep. One simple square pass from Lallana to Wijnaldum means Liverpool have passing lanes forward and Coquelin outnumbered 3 v. 1 near the halfway line.

We were also confused by the excellent movement of Firmino. The Brazilian dropped into deep positions from his starting position at striker and floated into the channels to create overloads all over the pitch. Liverpool found an excellent balance with Firmino in this sort of false 9 role with Mane and Coutinho playing the wide forward positions. Coutinho would tuck into the gaps between our midfield and defense to link play forward like a #10 and Mane would tuck inside and play high up the pitch near our center backs, his pace posing a serious threat in behind our defense.

Below is an example of this clever movement from Liverpool. Here, Firmino drops very deep into midfield to collect a pass from Clyne. Coutinho has come all the way across the pitch from the left and offers Firmino a short square pass. The two then combine for a quick 1-2 before playing into Mane between the lines.

This particular move fizzled out for Liverpool but Firmino’s and Coutinho’s movement was critical for Liverpool’s second. Firmino pulled wide to the right channel to get on the ball and Coutinho moved into space between the lines. Firmino plays a penetrating pass to Coutinho who flicks on for Wijnaldum. Lallana makes a driving run into the box and takes down Winjaldum’s cross with a deft touch before finishing coolly.

Even Coutinho’s stunning free kick opener came about as the result of clever movement from the Liverpool front three. Firmino dropped to within 10 yards of the halfway line to collect a short pass from Henderson. Again, Elneny stepped forward to press him, leaving Coquelin behind him and acres of space in the middle of the pitch (see screen grab below). Firmino plays a pass to Mane who is then able to pick out Coutinho tucking inside. Holding steps out and commits the foul. The issue here isn’t just that Elneny is pressing. Pressing when done as a unit is great but the movement has to be coordinated throughout the squad. The issue here is what’s going on behind Elneny. Our defense is way too deep when Firmino gets the ball, leaving a massive gap for Liverpool players to move into and offer him easy passing lanes. The second the defense sees Elneny stepping forward to press they all need to push up to close that gap between defense and midfield. We were never compact enough. On one hand we were trying to press high up the pitch but on the other hand we were playing with a deep defensive line. That’ll never work out well. I’m sure Holding and Chambers wanted to stay deep because they were concerned about the pace of Mane and Coutinho getting in behind them. But if that was the case we needed to have the midfield play deeper to screen the center backs. Our shape was too loose in defense throughout the 90 minutes.

Arsenal don’t exploit Moreno in second half

In the match preview I discussed what a defensive liability Moreno is and that we should be looking to force him into 1 v. 1 situations as much as possible down our right side. In the 14th minute he attempted to head a clearance that fell straight to Ramsey in the penalty area. On that occasion he made a decent recovery tackle but his shakiness was evident. Then in the 28th he took a wild lunge at Walcott in the box leading to an Arsenal penalty. For Arsenal’s opener he was high up the pitch when Lallana lost possession in midfield, leaving him out of position and allowing space down the right for Walcott to drive forward and score.

However in the second half we got away from attacking down the right and made Moreno’s job too easy. Walcott only attempted two take ons in the entire 90 minutes, both of which were in the first half. He completed just 13 passes, 8 of those came in the opening half.

The most maddeningly frustrating stat of the weekend is that according to whoscored.com 48% of Arsenal’s attacks were down the left side and only 27% were down the right side. I’m sure some of this has to do with the fact Iwobi plays more of a possession style and likes to join in the buildup more while Theo is a much more direct player. But when an opposition has such a glaringly obvious weakness in their defensive ranks you have to alter your game to exploit it. Liverpool have a very solid right back and an England international in Nathanial Clyne yet we chose to attack him time and again over Moreno. 

Conclusion

I think the obvious takeaway from this match is how abundantly clear it was that we were unprepared for every facet of a football match. Physically we looked off the pace, evidenced by the fact Liverpool covered 5 kilometers more than us over the 90 minutes. Tactically we were all over the place, conceding way too much space defensively and failing to exploit the biggest weaknesses in Liverpool’s not-all-that-good back four. Mentally we responded to Coutinho’s late first half equalizer by capitulating and conceding three in 15 minutes. Yes we made it close in the end but a hardened, mentally strong team would have never gotten themselves into a position where they were 3 goals down at home on the opening day of the season. That the squad needed reinforcements should have been abundantly clear before the match but now Wenger can’t even try to claim otherwise. All is certainly not lost. The returns of Koscielny, Ozil and Giroud will have a big impact but still the result is troubling. We were played off the park by a team that will be one of our competitors for a top 4 spot. Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea all won. Tottenham have a talented squad and could easily be right up there again this season. Competition for a top four spot is as tight as it has ever been and if we don’t improve quickly our run of Champions League participation will be under serious threat.

Arsenal's matchweek 1 scouting report: Liverpool

For the 2016-2017 season Soccermetrica will focus solely on Arsenal. I plan on doing a weekly scouting report of the Gunners’ upcoming opponent that I’ll put out at least a day before each match day. I’ll also write a detailed tactical analysis of each fixture that I will try to put out the Sunday or Monday after a amatch.

Here is the first installment of the weekly scouting report for Arsenal’s week one opponent Liverpool. These should become more detailed with more graphics and game-specific analysis in subsequent weeks as our opponents begin playing competitive fixtures that offer more insight into how they’ll lineup and approach matches tactically.

Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp is enjoying his first preseason at Liverpool having replaced Brendan Rodgers last October. It’s remarkably difficult for a manager to arrive midseason and thoroughly instill a nuanced playing philosophy while also trying to prepare for matches every few days. So while their 8th place finish last season wasn’t hugely impressive (they were 10th when Klopp took over), they did appear to be developing a distinct identity and better positional organization under Klopp as the season progressed, something they were desperately lacking towards the end of the Brendan Rodgers era and will look to build on this time around.

That disappointing 8th place finish may largely be attributable to a congested fixture list brought about by impressive finals runs in both the League Cup and the Europa League. Although they lost both those matches, the fact they got there was cause for optimism in Klopp’s first partial season and offered proof that he was having an effect.

This summer’s preseason will provide invaluable time on the training pitch. Preseason will also provide Klopp’s staff the chance to control the fitness regime of the squad. Liverpool hired on Bayern Munich’s fitness and conditioning coach Andreas Kornmayer and nutritionist Mona Nemmer in May and Klopp has promised the most difficult preseason of his players’ careers.

One thing you know to expect from a Jurgen Klopp side is a tireless work rate and relentless pressing in midfield. They finished tied with Leicester in successful tackles per game last season and if the new training regiment has the desired impact we can expect an even more tenacious side off the ball.

New signings

Klopp has made six new signings this closed season. Loris Karius was brought in from Mainz to provide competition for Simon Mignolet but broke his hand in a friendly against Chelsea at the end of July. Sadio Mane will provide attacking pace in wide areas following an impressive last season at Southampton where he scored 11 league goals and provided 7 assists. Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan will provide competition for Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho at center back. Georginio Wijnaldum is a tremendously athletic midfielder capable of providing goals from midfield. He led Newcastle in goals last season and was second in assists and should compete for a spot in the first 11. Veteran goalkeeper Alex Manninger was brought in to provide additional cover for Mignolet and Karius. Additionally, the promising 20 year old midfielder Marko Grujic signed from Red Star Belgrade in January but was immediately sent back to them on loan for the remainder of the season. He’ll provide additional depth in midfield after Joe Allen’s departure for Stoke City.

How they’ll line up

At the Emirates against a midfield as technically gifted as ours I expect Klopp to opt for more of a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1 so as not to get overrun in the middle of the pitch. That midfield three will likely be Emre Can flanked by two of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum or Adam Lallana.

If Klopp does go with the 4-3-3 we could see Mane on the right of a front three, with Coutinho on the left and either Roberto Firmino or Divock Origi at the #9 with Daniel Sturridge likely to miss out as he recovers from a hip injury. This is Anfield’s Henry Jackson predicts Firmino will get the nod after an impressive preseason and with Origi’s late arrival following his participation in the Euros with Belgium.

Like Arsenal, Liverpool are struggling with injuries in defense. They will be without Mamadou Sakho for the opening weeks of the season while it looks like Dejan Lovren will recover from a knock in time for Sunday’s kickoff. Matip is just returning from an injury of his own and apparently looked off the pace in their 4-0 defeat Sunday to Mainz. We’ll therefore likely see Lovren partner with new signing Klavan- who has impressed in preseason- in the center of defense. Nathaniel Clyne will start at right back. The Reds are rumored to be interested in Köln left back Jonas Hector but to start the season the at times erratic Alberto Moreno will retain his spot at left back.

Klopp will hope preparations this summer will result in more assuredness at the back. Despite possessing the 8th best goals against record last season, Liverpool made more defensive errors than any other side with 32 according to data from Squawka (Watford had the next most errors with 28, Arsenal had the fourth most with 25).

How Arsenal will line up

Arsenal have of course been hit with an all too predictable injury crisis that sees us without center backs Gabriel and Mertesacker for an extended period. Koscielny is likely to miss out having just arrived early this week to training after France’s run to the finals of the European Championship. These absences coupled with our baffling inability (or unwillingness) to sign an obviously needed top class center back to partner Koscielny means the situation in the center of defense looks dire for the opener. Ahead of our friendly with the MLS All Stars at the end of July, Coquelin revealed via the Arsenal snapchat that, with Koscielny on holiday and Gabriel out at the time with tonsillitis, he had been training at center back. Krystian Bielik and Rob Holding ended up partnering in the center of defense for that game but both are yet to make their Premier League debut and it’s difficult to imagine Wenger starting an 18 and 20 year old in an important league fixture. Might we then see Coquelin partnering Calum Chambers? Chambers seems the one obvious pick to start but he hasn’t exactly overwhelmed in his appearances at center back thus far at Arsenal. Wenger may opt to rush Koscielny back but has been reluctant to hurry players back at the beginning past seasons even when it has meant using a significantly weakened side. Monreal and Debuchy are also capable of deputizing in the center of defense. If Monreal were to slot inside, we wouldn’t lose much on the left with the able Kieran Gibbs slotting in at left back. Hector Bellerin at right back is the only obvious feature of the back four. What Wenger opts to do with the center backs will be partly fascinating but mostly terrifying.

At the base of midfield we should see Granit Xhaka make his Premier League debut, particularly if Coquelin does indeed start at center back. Mohamed Elneny has been fantastic in pre season showing the impressive energy levels we saw last season but combining that work rate with a range of passing and assuredness on the ball he was at times lacking following his January move from Basel. It’s difficult to see how Wenger could leave him out.

With Ozil being rested following his summer with Germany at the Euros I expect to see Ramsey in the more advanced central role. He’ll play that role differently than Ozil, collecting the ball in slightly deeper areas and looking to dribble past the midfield whereas Ozil tends to collect the ball in pockets of space between the lines. Ramsey was hugely impressive this summer with Wales and a return to his 2013-2014 form would be a massive boost, although he’ll likely operate in either a deeper midfield role or on the right when Ozil returns.

Wenger has a difficult to decision to make about who starts at striker. Alexis Sanchez played there in the friendly win over Manchester City on Sunday. He looked a bit rusty but has operated centrally with great success at times with Chile, although usually as part of a front two.

Alternatively Wenger could go with Theo Walcott. The manager views Walcott as more of a striker than a wide attacker though the 27 year old expressed a desire to return to the wing. Wenger feels his defense isn’t strong enough to consistently operate on the right but he performed excellently there in the Man City friendly, providing a first half assist for Alex Iwobi before combining well with Alexis for a one-two before deftly chipping over Joe Hart.

Wenger said in a 2012 interview with FIFA “the 4-4-2 formation is the formation best suited to the dimension of the football pitch.” In recent seasons he has ditched the 4-4-2 for either 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 because it allows for more control in midfield and the presence of Ozil more or less requires you to play 4-2-3-1 with him in the #10 role.  But with Ozil out this weekend I’d be half tempted to use a 4-4-2 with Xhaka and Elneny in the middle of midfield, Ramsey tucking inside from the right and Alex Iwobi on the left. Wenger would likely never spring for it but I do think it suits the players we have available well.

Ramsey is comfortable playing on the right and tucking inside to offer additional link up play forward. You can still defend in two banks of four out of possession- Ramsey is a tireless runner and will track the opposition fullback. In possession he tucks inside and operates more like a #10. Perhaps most importantly, I think Walcott and Alexis are better as part of a strike partnership than as lone #9’s. Their combination that resulted in the goal against City offers some proof they can combine well together. Up against a new and not particularly quick defensive partnership for Liverpool in Lovren and Klavan, I think the two could cause real problems. It’s probably a futile thought- Wenger will almost certainly operate with three in the middle of midfield- but is interesting to consider at least theoretically.

My best guess is we see Chamberlain on the right, Ramsey in the #10 role, Iwobi on the left and Alexis at striker.

Liverpool advantages

The obvious advantage for Liverpool will be their three attacking players against what will be a makeshift Arsenal center back pairing following injuries to Mertesacker and Gabriel.  I imagine we’ll look to maintain possession as much as possible to keep our inexperienced backline from being put under pressure. That means when Liverpool do win the ball back, which under Klopp they’ll do quite well, the midfield need to recover quickly. Any quick transitions forward from Liverpool that leave our center backs exposed could cause some serious troubles. In Mane, Coutinho and Firmino Liverpool have pace and trickery in abundance.

Liverpool could also cause us problems pressing high up the pitch. Chambers has a tendency to give the ball way cheaply when put under pressure and Cech isn’t always convincing when the ball is dropped back to him. If Liverpool can press high and force our center backs to play backwards to Cech, it’ll force him into hitting long hopeful clearances forward. Not only will that prevent us from developing a passing rhythm from back to front, without Giroud we don’t have anyone likely to win any of those long balls.

Arsenal advantages

Whether Wenger starts Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott or Joel Campbell on the right side of midfield, Arsenal should have an advantage down that channel where Alberto Moreno will be at left back for Liverpool. Moreno can certainly be a threat going forward but is a truly awful defender, poor both positionally and in terms of his decision-making and 1 v. 1 defending. He’ll almost certainly look to provide attacking width deep in the Arsenal half when Liverpool are in possession which should open up space down the right to counter into when we win the ball back. Whoever plays at right midfield will have to be diligent tracking Moreno’s bursts forward but should get plenty of joy in transitions. Ramsey should look to float right from his #10 role and Bellerin will get forward from right back, forcing Moreno into tricky overloads where his decision-making tends to be poor.

Elsewhere, Arsenal could cause problems to what will be a new center back partnership for Liverpool in Lovren and Klavan. Whoscored.com lists Klavan’s weaknesses as aerial duels and tackling, two seemingly important skill sets for a Premier League center back, and Lovren can at times look clumsy and unathletic though he enjoyed a marked improvement under Klopp after a disastrous 2014-2015 season. If the Arsenal front four can get behind the Liverpool midfield and force the two center backs into defending 1 v. 1 we’ll be favored to win those battles.  

Liverpool 0-3 West Ham: West Ham defend deep, counter into channels, take advantage of Liverpool errors

West Ham put in an organized counterattacking performance and took advantage of Liverpool defensive errors en route to a 3-0 away win, the East London club's first league win at Anfield since 1963. Forced to play on the front foot, Liverpool looked a shell of the side that put in an excellent performance in a 0-0 draw at Arsenal Monday.

In his first season at Liverpool in 2012-2013 Brendan Rodgers stated his preferred formation was a 4-3-3 with one holding midfielder in front of the back four flanked on either side by two box-to-box running midfielders. He said he preferred this to 4-2-3-1, with two holding midfielders, because it offered more vertical passing options higher up the pitch whereas in a 4-2-3-1 the holding midfielders often play a lot of square passes either into each other or wide to the fullbacks. You can hear him explain his reasoning in the video below.

But right away Liverpool had problems with defensive balance in that 4-3-3 formation. The fullbacks would bomb forward to provide width high up the pitch. This left just the one holding midfielder and the two center backs in deep positions when Liverpool conceded possession. The opposition therefore had acres of space to quickly counterattack into, particularly behind the advanced fullbacks.

Lucas Podolski's first goal in a 2-0 Arsenal win at Anfield in early September 2012 exemplified that lack of balance. Steven Gerrard gave the ball away cheaply in Liverpool's attacking third. Right back Glen Johnson had pushed forward down the channel to provide width. Joe Allen, playing as the lone holding midfielder, was the only Liverpool player in a defensive position in midfield to try to stop the counter. Santi Cazorla easily drifted into a space between Allen and the Liverpool center backs and collected a pass from Podolski. Podolski continued his run and sprinted in behind the advanced Johnson, received a well timed ball from Cazorla and slotted it in.

Liverpool has used a 4-3-3 in their last two Premier League games, the 0-0 draw at Arsenal Monday evening and today. Those were two very different games for Liverpool and the formation worked to different effect in each. Against Arsenal, Rodgers was content allowing the home side to control possession. Liverpool defended deep in a 4-1-4-1 shape, invited Arsenal forward, then looked to play on the break. It was an excellent away performance- they frustrated Arsenal with compact defending and forced the home side to come up with the creativity to break them down.

Today, Liverpool's role was reversed. They were the favored side playing at home and therefore the onus was on them to break down a visiting side that was always likely to defend deep and play on the break. Rodgers' side had some of the same problems in the 4-3-3 that his 2012-2013 side had in that 0-2 loss to Arsenal.

Lucas Leiva played at the base of midfield, with Emre Can and James Milner either side of him in the shuttling roles. Both Milner and Can moved into advanced positions in the attacking third when Liverpool were on the ball. Coutinho and Firmino tucked inside from their starting positions, leaving Joe Gomez and Nathaniel Clyne to provide the width from fullback. As a result, Liverpool often only had Lucas and center backs Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel behind the ball. Liverpool therefore struggled to defend the width of the pitch against counters. Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini would break forward into the channels in the space left vacated by Gomez and Clyne to join striker Diafra Sakho. This forced Skrtel and Lovren to move into the channels to defend Payet and Lanzini on the counter, a position that neither center back is particularly comfortable in given the lack of pace they share.

The screen shot below is a good example of Liverpool's first half shape. Lucas is on the ball with Lovren and Skrtel just behind him. Can is in a slightly more advanced position to his right. Out of the shot Firmino has taken up a central position from the right and Clyne has gotten forward to provide width down the right channel. If Liverpool concede possession from this position they are in a difficult shape to defend against the counter. Payet can run past Clyne and force Skrtel to defend him 1 v. 1- a position that's always going to favor Payet. On the oppositie channel, Lanzini can sprint behind Gomez and force Lovren to defend in the channel. Again, it's a battle you'd expect the West Ham wide man to win.

West Ham's second goal, through Lovren's ridiculous error, came as a result of the Croation defender being forced to defend in West Ham's right attacking channel. West Ham right back James Tomkins knocked a ball over the top behind Gomez into the right channel. Lovren slid over and collected the ball near the touchline but was put under immediate pressure by Lanzini. The defender looked to have escaped the pressure but was woefully ponderous in possession and gave Lanzini another bite of the cherry. The Argentinian nipped in, won the ball and slid it across the face of goal. It was ultimately deflected to Mark Noble who slotted home coolly.

In the draw with Arsenal early this week, Liverpool were always in a tight, compact defensive four with Gomez just to the left of Lovren in a position to defend the channels. Lovren could therefore stay central, check the runs of any Arsenal players moving into the box and clear away anything that came to him. His lack of mobility wasn't much of an issue because Liverpool's deep compact shape allowed him to do all his defending inside the penalty area.

Today, with Liverpool dictating possession, Gomez was higher up the pitch meaning Lovren didn't always have that cover to his left. He was pulled wide into the channels and forced to defend quicker players 1 v. 1. The graphic below shows the passes West Ham completed in the final third. They completed just 50% of their passes into the final third but nearly all of those occurred in the channels where Liverpool were most vulnerable, particularly down the left side of Liverpool's defense.

Rodgers change in formation at halftime to 3-4-2-1 with a back three and wing backs was an acknowledgement of just how vulnerable his side had been defending the channels in the first half. Alberto Moreno came on for Emre Can and played left wing back. Gomez moved to right center back with Clyne operating as right wing back.

The shape allowed Coutinho and Firmino to take up the narrow positions they had been in the first half just behind Benteke. It also enabled Liverpool to get width from their wide defenders, Clyne and Moreno. But whereas Liverpool had just two center backs to defend the width of the pitch when the fullbacks bombed forward in the first half, they now had three center backs and could therefore more effectively cover the channels. Gomez and Lovren would split into wider areas when Liverpool had the ball. When they lost possession West Ham could no longer knock it into the channels to spring counters because Lovren and Gomez were already positioned there.

With Liverpool's change in shape West Ham didn't offer as much on the break in the second half. We didn't have time to get much of an idea how it would've worked for Liverpool in attack as Coutinho was foolishly sent off for a second yellow in the 52nd minute.

This game follows a fascinating trend so far in the Premier League of favored home sides struggling to break down deep, compact opposition looking to play on the counter. Notable examples have been West Ham's 2-0 defeat of Arsenal at the Emirates, Newcastle's 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, Everton's 3-0 win at Southampton and Liverpool's 0-0 draw at Arsenal. I didn't watch Chelsea's 2-1 home loss to Crystal Palace today but I presume it followed a similar pattern. Remarkably, as I type this, the home side has won just 7 of the 37 Premier League matches played thus far.

I'm not sure what explains the trend. I imagine the tradition of English football being played at a frenetic pace means teams are less comfortable when the game slows down and they have to patiently pick apart the opposition. I think the main reason we're seeing home teams lose is that they become too proactive. When home teams are up against opposition that is defending deep and inviting them to push numbers forward, they always take that invitation and leave themselves too vulnerable at the back to quick counters. In Italy you'll often see a side bating the opposition to bring numbers forward so they can hit them on the break but the opposition often won't take the bate. They'll attack more conservatively, always conscious of what type of defensive shape they'll be in if they concede possession. While that conservative attacking may make for some slower, less entertaining spectacles for viewers, it mitigates the risk of being caught out on the break.

It's something you'll rarely see in England but something home teams probably should do more of. English teams are generally filled with pacey, direct players most comfortable when they have the space to run with the ball. By allowing an away side to play on the break, home teams are are giving the opposition the chance to play a style that most suits their personnel.

Should Brendan Rodgers switch Liverpool's midfield box to a diamond after being overrun in midfield by United

Following Liverpool's 3-0 defeat away to Manchester United in mid December, Brendan Rodgers decided he'd seen enough positives from the 3-4-2-1 formation he used for the first time that afternoon to give the formation another go. It was a brave decision to stick with the experimental shape after a heavy defeat to bitter rivals but Rodgers' side had played much better than the scoreline suggested- David De Gea was excellent in the Manchester United goal coming up with 9 saves. Rodgers' decision paid off- Liverpool went on a 13 game unbeaten run in the league with the 3-4-2-1 formation and put themselves in a position to contest for the final Champions League spot.

However, over the course of their last two fixtures, an unconvincing 1-0 win over Swansea and yesterday's defeat to Manchester United, Liverpool have begun to look more stretched defensively and less threatening going forward. Swansea were dominant in the opening half, controlling possession with 57.8% and getting into dangerous scoring positions. Their wastefulness in the final third let them down but Swansea were the better side in the opening 45 minutes. It was a similar story yesterday. Liverpool were entirely overrun in the first half. Manchester United bossed possession with 60.4% but more importantly controlled the tempo and didn't let Liverpool get anywhere near them.

The source of Liverpool's recent difficulties seem to largely be coming from the central midfield zone. The 3-4-2-1 shape uses two holding midfielders- Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen- and two attacking midfielders- generally two of Adam Lallana, Coutinho or Raheem Sterling- in what in effect is a midfield box. At its best the shape allows the two attacking midfielders to float into dangerous pockets of space between the opposition defensive lines, creating plenty of forward passing options and resulting in a brand of football that is fluid and confusing for opposition defenses. Over the last two games however it has caused Liverpool to be overrun in midfield. In the system, the two attacking midfielders stay high up the pitch when the opposition is in possession. Liverpool defend with a defensive bank of three- the three center backs- and a midfield bank of four- the two holding midfielders and the two wing backs. The shape forces Henderson and Allen to do a tremendous amount of defensive work in the middle of midfield. Against a side that plays with three central midfielders like Manchester United yesterday, Allen and Henderson are outnumbered 2 v. 3 in the central midfield zone. As a result, Liverpool have had difficulties getting the ball off the opposition which is why we saw Swansea and Manchester United with such high first half possession totals.

We also see big gaps form in the center of the pitch between Henderson and Allen. The opposition can split these gaps with vertical passes, easily bisecting Liverpool's midfield. This happened time and again against United. United were in a 4-3-3 with Herrera and Marouane Fellaini to the left and right respectively of Michael Carrick at the base of midfield. Both Herrera and Fellaini would take up positions closer to the channels than the center of the pitch. In order to deny passes into them in these areas, Henderson and Allen would have to get tight to them in the wider positions they were taking up. This left what at times was a 15 to 20 yard gap between the two Liverpool holding midfielders. United were able to play passes between that gap, effectively taking the entire Liverpool midfield out of the game with one simple vertical pass.  The screen shot below shows one of many examples of the vast gap between Henderson and Allen in the first half. With Carrick enjoying plenty of time on the ball he has plenty of options for playing forward passes against a stretched Liverpool midfield line.

Rodgers recognized this issue in both the Swansea and Manchester United games. In the second half of those contests he replaced one of the two attacking midfielders with Steven Gerrard who operated just in front of the back four, altering the shape from a midfield box to a midfield diamond. Against Swansea Gerrard replaced Alberto Moreno with Lallana dropping in to fill Moreno's left wing back spot. Against Manchester United Gerrard replaced Lallana. The midfield was therefore Gerrard at the base, flanked on either side by Henderson and Allan in shutting roles with Coutinho at the top of the diamond. The subtle change in shape gave Liverpool more control in the Swansea contest. Defensively, Allen and Henderson would drop in alongside Gerrard to form a midfield bank of five rather than the four they had when they were operating with two attacking midfielders. They were better able to compete in midfield and prevent Swansea from circulating possession as they had in the opening half. We were unable to see whether the change would have a similar impact yesterday after Gerrard's immediate dismissal following his introduction at halftime.

I think the midfield diamond as opposed to the box is something Rodgers may need to opt for more often in the final fixtures to give Liverpool a stronger presence in midfield. With the two deeper lying midfielders used in the box they're asking Henderson and Allen to do too much ball winning in the central midfield zone. By switching to a diamond and defending with a midfield bank of five rather than four they'll be better able to disrupt the attacking rhythm of the opposition and allow fewer gaps in midfield for the opposition to play passes into. Figure 1 shows their current defensive set up with the midfield box, Figure 2 shows the defensive shape with a midfield diamond. (I'm using the traditional numbering system here so these numbers don't correspond to actual Liverpool players, it would have made way too much sense to show the names of actual Liverpool players in their normal positions.) In the box system there is at times too big a gap between Henderson and Allen that the opposition can easily get in between. With the introduction of a holding midfielder those gaps are tightened.

Figure 1: In their current midfield box with two holding midfielders and two attacking midfielders, the holding midfielders are asked to cover a tremendous amount of ground defensively and gaps form between them.

Figure 1: In their current midfield box with two holding midfielders and two attacking midfielders, the holding midfielders are asked to cover a tremendous amount of ground defensively and gaps form between them.

Figure 3: By introducing a holding midfielder just in front of the back four and defending with a midfield bank of five there are fewer gaps for the opposition to play through in the middle of midfield and Liverpool can compete better defensively in that zone.

Figure 3: By introducing a holding midfielder just in front of the back four and defending with a midfield bank of five there are fewer gaps for the opposition to play through in the middle of midfield and Liverpool can compete better defensively in that zone.

They'll still have four central midfielders and will therefore continue to be able to overload the opposition midfield when in possession but it will be more structured, less of the swashbuckling style we've seen with the current box midfield. Gerrard's dismissal of course means he'll be unavailable for the next three games but they still have the personnel to play the diamond. Lucas Leiva is a fine candidate to play at the base of the diamond. He lacks Gerrard's range of passing but is competent in possession and provides needed bite on the defensive end.

The one obvious downfall of switching from the box to the diamond is that Rodgers would likely have to remove one creative midfielder to make way for Lucas. However, Coutinho has already shown he can be effective in a slightly deeper, shuttling role. He's played on the left of a central midfield triangle in a 4-3-3 and on the left of a center midfield diamond in a 4-4-2. One option would therefore be to go with Lucas at the base of the diamond with Henderson to his right and Coutinho to his left in the shuttling roles and either Lallana or Sterling at the tip of the diamond as shown in Figure 3 below. Allen would be the odd man out. It's a set up that provides quite a nice balance of defensive steel, energetic running and technical ability.

Figure 3: Hypothetical Liverpool lineup with three at the back, wing backs and midfield diamond.

Figure 3: Hypothetical Liverpool lineup with three at the back, wing backs and midfield diamond.

Throughout his time at Liverpool Rodgers has shown a great deal of tactical flexibility. If he feels a system isn't working he's more than willing to experiment with another one. Given yesterday's loss was only Liverpool's second since introducing the 3-4-2-1 it's hardly time to scrap the system. However, the Swansea and Manchester United fixtures may hint the midfield box leaves Liverpool too thin in midfield.

Ibe's positioning at wing back opens space between Rose and Vertonghen that Liverpool exploit

Mario Balotelli's first Premier League goal since 2012 gave Liverpool a 3-2 win over Tottenham in a game that twice saw Spurs come from a goal behind to draw level. The win crucially puts Brendan Rodgers' side just 3 points behind 4th place Arsenal and just a point behind Spurs in the race for Champions League places. A win would have seen Spurs go third at least briefly with Southampton and Manchester United still to play tomorrow.

This was an immensely entertaining contest for the first hour with with two quite different formations that created some really intriguing tactical battles. With both sides having played important derby matches just two days ago, fatigue seemed to set in on the hour mark and the energy fell until Balotelli's 83rd minute winner. Rodgers' second half substitutions made the difference- Balotelli replaced the excellent Daniel Sturridge, still regaining fitness from the thigh injury that has seen him miss most of the season, in the 74th minute and was set up with an assist from Adam Lallana who came on for Lazar Markovic in the in the 79th.

What proved to be the key tactical feature on the day occurred down Liverpool's right attacking side. Rodgers opted for the same 3-4-2-1 formation he's used in recent matches with Jordan Ibe given a second successive league start at right wing back after his excellent performance at Everton Saturday. Ibe was instrumental in setting up both Liverpool second half goals and proved a tactical nightmare defensively for Spurs left back Danny Rose and left midfielder Christian Eriksen.

Markovic and later Lallana operated in a narrow right-sided attacking midfield position. The left side of Spurs defense was confused throughout about who was responsible for picking up this inside right attacking midfielder and who was responsible for tracking Ibe. Ryan Mason played as the left-sided holding midfielder in a double pivot with Nabil Bentaleb (in the 69th Paulinho replaced Mason and Bentaleb moved into Mason's left-sided position). He pressed Henderson, Liverpool's right sided holding midfielder, when Liverpool were in possession. This left Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder with space behind Mason and in front of Rose and left-sided center back Jan Vertonghen (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Markovic occupies space behind Mason and in front of Rose and Vertonghen.

Figure 1: Markovic occupies space behind Mason and in front of Rose and Vertonghen.

Rose and Vertonghen therefore had a difficult decision to make about their positioning. Vertonghen could step out from the back line to get tight to Markovic/Lallana but it would have opened up space in behind for the pacey Daniel Sturridge to make a diagonal run in behind (Figure 2).

Figure 2: If Vertonghen steps to Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder it opens space in behind for Sturridge to run into

Figure 2: If Vertonghen steps to Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder it opens space in behind for Sturridge to run into

Alternatively, Rose could have tucked inside towards Markovic/Lallana, leaving space down the channel for Ibe to run into behind Eriksen (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Space opens up for Ibe down the touchline if Rose tucks inside towards Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder.

Figure 3: Space opens up for Ibe down the touchline if Rose tucks inside towards Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder.

Spurs opted more for the option in Figure 3 with Rose tucking inside. The problem that arose for Pochettino's side was therefore that Ibe was happy to take that space near the touchline behind Eriksen. To effectively deal with that threat, Eriksen would have had to been asked to track Ibe's runs all the way into the Liverpool attacking third. Such a strategy would have had its own drawbacks- Spurs wouldn't have wanted their most creative attacking player pinned 80 yards from the opposition goal.

When Ibe got the ball in advanced wide positions his direct and incisive decision-making were extremely effective. By receiving possession near the touch line he forced Rose to sprint wide to close him down. Spurs left-sided holding midfielder (Mason and then Betaleb when Mason was subbed) would drift to that channel to offer defensive support for Rose, vacating space in the middle of the pitch that Markovic and then Lallana could exploit.

The screen shot below shows the buildup to the penalty won by Sturridge that resulted in Liverpool's second goal. Ibe gets the ball wide, forcing Rose to the touchline. Bentaleb offers defensive cover leaving space at the right edge of the box Sturridge to move into on this occasion. Ibe finds Sturridge with the next pass who dribbles past Mason and is taken down by Rose in his effort to make a recovery tackle.

The buildup to Balotelli's winner was remarkably similar. Here, Ibe receives a pass from Lallana on the touchline. Once again Rose is forced wide to close him down with Bentaleb providing cover. Lallana drifts into the space left vacated by Bentaleb and provides a well-weighted ball across the face of goal for Balotelli to tuck in.

Markovic's opener was slightly different- Simon Mignolet's long punt toward Sturridge ultimately fell for the Serbian in space to dribble forward, but like the other two it resulted from a Liverpool player finding space just inside the right channel.

Pochettino's side created their share of difficult tactical issues for Liverpool. With Markovic, Coutinho and Sturridge all staying high up the pitch Liverpool were outmanned in the middle of midfield where Gerrard and Henderson often found themselves trying to defend Bentaleb, Mason and Dembele as well as Eriksen and Lamela tucking inside. Spurs' fantastic opener came when Lamela and Eriksen tucked insideto overload that zone and played a tidy 1-2 before Lamela laid off an inch-perfect reverse pass for Harry Kane.

One final interesting feature of this contest was Liverpool's first half pressing of Bentaleb and Mason, an approach that differed from that taken by Arsene Wenger in the North London Derby Saturday. Arsenal sat deep and allowed Bentaleb and Mason plenty of time on the ball. The two midfielders looked excellent, Bentaleb providing the cross for Kane's winner, and Spurs controlled the game. Today the two looked extremely uncomfortable with the pressure they were being put under and struggled to move the ball forward to the front four. Both Mason and Bentaleb played poor back passes that nearly led to one v. one opportunities at the Spurs goal for Ibe and Sturridge. The difference in strategy between Arsenal and Liverpool could be attributable to the fact Arsenal were the away side Saturday and therefore more cautious, but it's difficult not to wonder if Arsenal couldn't have come away from that contest with something had they put the two rather green Spurs midfielders under more pressure.